(CP) – While a large chunk of the world grows increasingly parched and desperate for fresh water, most Canadians don’t think twice about turning on the taps for a drink or shower, and having an instant, abundant supply.
And few feel guilty for running the water a full minute to make it really cold, or lingering in a hot shower for half an hour.
Meanwhile, an estimated 1.1 billion people lack access to clean water, and shortages plague Australia, parts of Africa, the Middle East and the United States. And the United Nations warns two-thirds of the world will face serious water shortages by 2025.
Drier countries must look enviously at a map of Canada with all its large splotches and veins of blue, but advocates are worried that Canadians have taken those vast bodies of water for granted, and they’re particularly concerned that there’s a lack of alarm over serious, growing problems in the Great Lakes.
Lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario and Superior make up about 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water, are used by more than 30 per cent of Canada’s population, and also help to push out about 50 per cent of Canada’s manufacturing output and hundreds of billions of dollars in trade.
And yet there seems to be little public concern about problems that are slowly affecting the health of those lakes and the creatures that live in and around them.
“The Great Lakes are the lifeblood of this entire part of the world, but if people think they can take much more abuse, or that we can allow more pollution, more invasive species, then they’re wrong,” said Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians, one of the loudest advocates to protect the country’s water.
“The entire ecosystem of North America depends on the health of these lakes, and if we think that they could not disappear or substantially be reduced, we haven’t learned anything from history.”
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said in a recent interview that he’s “concerned that the Great Lakes have slid to the back of environmental concerns,” even though public-health advisories about contaminated fish and beach closures are constant reminders of problems.
A new report by Environmental Defence found many different species of fish are already somewhat or completely unsafe to eat, and others are getting close to that danger level.
And yet the federal government has stood by idly while the water quality deteriorates, even as the American government talks about spending US$20 billion to revitalize the lakes, said policy director Aaron Freeman.
“Pollution sources in Canada are actually becoming worse, while on the U.S. side of the border, there’s been a major cleanup effort,” he said.
“And there has been virtually nothing on the Canadian side to match that commitment.”
A recent joint report by Environment Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states the health of the lakes is currently mixed at best, with the good news being that the state of drinking water is considered good in all five lakes.
But while significant achievements have been made over the last few decades in removing toxic chemicals from the waters, the report notes it will be 10 to 30 years before those substances are completely eliminated from the lakes.
Even as they disappear, new substances – including pharmaceuticals and personal-care products – are being found in water testing all the time.
And one of the most troubling problems for experts to tackle is a growing invasion of aquatic invasive species that have sneaked into the Great Lakes basin and bullied their way near the top of the food chain.
The introduction of each new species into the Great Lakes can throw the ecosystem into chaos, as the invaders typically have no predators to compete with and can decisively take control of their environment.
So far, 183 aquatic invasive species are being studied and monitored by scientists – including round gobies, rusty crayfish, sea lampreys and zebra mussels – and a new one is found in the Great Lakes about every seven months.
“With every new species that’s brought in, it’s a cumulative effect,” said Beth Brownson, a biologist with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources.
“When you put them all together, it can be catastrophic for the environment.”
Invasive species can damage infrastructure, feed on unsuspecting creatures, out-compete others for food, and take over habitats and change ecosystems – in some ways irreparably.
Governments have tried to stop them – billions of dollars are spent each year in research, cleanup and management – but those methods have proven futile, and experts concede invasive species are virtually impossible to eliminate once they’ve established a new home.
For example, it’s hard to imagine what else could be done to stop the sea lamprey, an eel-like species that’s native to the Atlantic Ocean and invasive in the Great Lakes.
Scientists have mapped its genome, experimented with pheromones and sterilization – and still use old-fashioned traps – in an attempt to stop the parasitic creatures from populating the lakes and sucking the life out of native fish.
But even those cutting-edge efforts have only worked to a limited degree, and sea lampreys are still a major problem.
Although sea lampreys have been found in the Great Lakes since the 1800s, many blame big business for creating the current invasive species climate and point to 1959 as the watershed that opened the floodgates.
It was that year that the St. Lawrence Seaway opened the door to ocean-going vessels entering the Great Lakes basin, and invasive species have been hitching a ride in the ballast tanks of those ships ever since.
The advocacy group Great Lakes United and the Canadian Auto Workers Local 1520 are calling for a moratorium on saltwater ships entering the Great Lakes basin until it can be assured the boats won’t inadvertently haul in any more invasive species.
But many observers see that as an unrealistic, wishful-thinking proposition given the economic benefits the shipping industry contributes on both sides of the border.
The moratorium campaign is probably more about getting the public’s attention rather than practicality, and will likely do more good in the United States than in Canada, said Chris Wiley, an aquatic invasive species expert who works for both Transport Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
While protesters say the United States is letting businesses off easy by not adequately enforcing its already-weak regulations, Canada has been testing the ballast water of every ship before granting access to the lakes, Wiley said.
He believes the Canadian regulations are stopping the majority of invaders from entering the lakes, although he admits it’s not a perfect solution and some sneak through.
“We have never indicated that this is a 100 per cent solution – this is a risk-reduction scenario – but right now the risk reduction seems to be well within what the scientists are suggesting is appropriate,” he said.
But Jim Mahon, the president of Great Lakes United, said he believes the Canadian testing of each ship is just cursory, and if some invaders can sneak through, it’s not a real solution.
One study suggests it would cost about US$55 million a year to arrange alternative modes of transportation to ship goods from the St. Lawrence Seaway to other destinations within the Great Lakes basin, which Mahon said is a small price to pay considering the billions in costs incurred by invasive species.
“Canada controls total access from the ocean, with the St. Lawrence Seaway being totally within Canada, so I think it’s appropriate for Canada to take a position to do something about it,” Mahon said.
“The way things are right now, we’re definitely going to lose the lakes to invasives.”